St John Passion

Acclaimed as “a landmark for contemporary music”, James MacMillan’s interpretation of the 2,000-year old Passion narrative is one of his most significant works to date. His account draws inspiration from previous musical settings of the Crucifixion story, dating as far back as the fourth century, and offers a new reading for the twenty-first century.

Producer: James Mallinson
Engineering, mixing & mastering: Jonathan Stokes for Classic Sound Ltd
Editing: Ian Watson & Jenni Whiteside for Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live in DSD 64fs on 27 April 2008 at the Barbican Hall, London

Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Colin Davis, with generous support from the Ronald A. Wilford Foundation for Conductors, and additionally by the Eduard van Beinum Foundation at the request of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Rundfunkchor Berlin.

When Sir Colin Davis was asked to select a composer to write a new work for his 80th birthday he chose James MacMillan, who was about to celebrate his own 50th birthday. After his landmark Seven Last Words from the Cross, James MacMillan had always felt that the inevitable next step would be to set one of the Gospel Passion narratives. His Catholic background led to him choosing St John’s text, being the version with which he was most acquainted from the Catholic liturgy on Good Friday. He writes: “Since my student days in Edinburgh, I have regularly participated in the Gregorian or Dominican chanting of the Crucifixion on that day. This simple music has had an overriding influence on the shape and character of my own Passion setting.” The result is a highly dramatic passion, fusing MacMillan’s own Catholic faith, compositional style and musical influences with the long tradition of settings for the passion of Christ in both the Catholic and Lutheran faiths.

Musical settings of the Crucifixion can be traced as far back as the fourth century. The original template consisted of three parts sung by three deacons in plainsong: Christ (the lowest notes), the Evangelist (the middle vocal range), and the other characters and ‘crowd’ (utilising the highest parts of the vocal range). MacMillan’s scoring is for single baritone soloist, in the role of Christus; a chamber choir, taking the part of Narrator (similar to Arvo Pärt’s Passio); a large chorus, which deals with all the other text and the characterisation of the other main players in the drama; and an orchestra that is sparser than one might expect (limited percussion, and no harps or keyboard instruments, save for a small chamber organ).

It is an ambitious work – a landmark, both for MacMillan’s output and contemporary music as a whole – and follows a series of major settings of the Crucifixion story during the latter part of the twentieth century by composers such as Kryzsztof Penderecki (1965), Arvo Pärt (1982), and Sofia Gubaidulina (2000). Musically, it flows between moments of real tenderness (Jesus and his Mother), and those of anguish and terror, the mood always reflecting the sense of the narrative being presented. This premiere recording is conducted by the late Sir Colin Davis, who is joined on stage by the imposing presence of Christopher Maltman. Gramophone magazine, in their review of the recording, described Maltman as giving “one of his finest performances to date, sonorous, assured… and reassuringly firm of tone”. It continues: “the choral and orchestral contributions are likewise beyond reproach, with the superb LSO brass in particular totally unfazed by MacMillan’s at times scarily vertiginous demands”.

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